Third defeat: 1941 or the language of the dead
The next day was Sunday. All the prisoners were forced to attend mass, which the chaplain said inside their cell. In his fierce, patriotic homily he talked about the Babe. With all the fury of an archangel, he condemned his suicide, but did not mention any other deaths. The prisoners listened in absolute silence. Those of them with a more highly-developed survival instinct went up to receive Communion. One of them was the boy with nits. When they returned to their places, the communicants covered their faces with their hands, more to hide their feelings of shame than out of any religious conviction.
When Juan asked the boy if he thought that by taking Communion he could change his destiny, the lad said perhaps, but that anyway the wafer was something to eat, and he was always starving.
The chaplain’s sermon led Juan to finish his letter as quickly as possible. There was something in the nature of time passing so slowly which seemed to precipitate and accelerate events, even though every second dragged by with such exasperating slowness.
As soon as Juan was able to get away from the others, he took out the paper and pencil again and went on writing:
… I’m still alive. The language of my dreams is increasingly accessible to me. When I want to show affection I talk about amortesy, and gentlety is the rare quality possessed by those who are kind to me. Hillain, cliffside, dreamscape, highcave, are words people in my dreams use to tell me about yearned-for landscapes and places beyond our barriers. They call anything that makes a drumming sound heartchimes, and wolf-flint is the howling of the wind. They call the sound of water in streams roargurgle. I love speaking
The lad with nits came and sat by him. He said nothing. Juan broke off his letter, and realised he had learned to catalogue sadness, to distinguish between all the different kinds of despair, to recognise fear mixed with hate, hatred on its own, and fear in its pure state. He even knew how to spot the difference between someone who was sorry for not doing something from someone who was sorry for having done something. But the boy beside him had a gaping hole deep in his eyes that came from something Juan had almost forgotten: a sense of loss. That was probably why the two of them began to talk in a leisurely way, gazing out at the sky beyond the bars of the window. Juan told him about Mozart – another of the defeated, and about
Salieri. He talked about the scientist Ramón y Cajal – another solitary fighter – and of how clouds are formed. He went on to mention Darwin and how important the thumb was for man to become man, how it helped him
climb down from trees and learn to kill his fellows.
‘But everything that took place, the Popular Front, the war, was to put an end to all that, wasn’t it?’
That freezing afternoon in a cell ineluctably disconnected from the natural flow of life, Juan did not have the strength to console him. All the effort had been useless because the starting point was wrong. Whatever you
do, half the people are going to be against you. It’s a punishment. So nobody is obliged to get it right. Am I boring you?
‘What I wouldn’t give to be able to roll a cigarette!’ was the boy’s only reply.
Talking like this they somehow forgot death. Sunday passed by furtively in a city steeped in fear. After that came day after day of dawn lists and orders to appear before Colonel Eymar’s tribunal. But as time went on,
there were more days of rest as well. One day there were no death trucks, the next no one had to appear before the Tribunal of Repression of Masons and Communism… and Juan was never summoned.
A few weeks later, as night was falling, he heard his name shouted out again in the corridor, and once again Sergeant Edelmiro escorted him to the dark room next to the kitchens. Inside were the fierce, hapless colonel and his wife, wrapped as ever in her astrakhan coat. As soon as she saw Juan, she handed him a jersey that had once been green. ‘It belonged to Miguelito,’ she told him, then launched into fresh questions as if their
previous conversation had taken place just the day before.
She told him stories about her son. Juan responded with more lies: he remembered that once Miguel had taken off his own woollen socks to lend to a prisoner who was shivering with cold, or another occasion when he had thrown his meal in the face of a cook who had refused to give any bread to a prisoner who sang the nationalist anthem whenever anyone barked orders at him. ..
These stories were not entirely invented, but they were attributed to someone who did not deserve to be their protagonist. Miguel Eymar was not a person about whom anything heroic, or even defiant, could be said. The strategy worked, as Juan Senra could tell when twice Sergeant Edelmiro was ignored as he poked his head round the door and uttered a servile ‘At your orders, colonel sir’, and at the end when Colonel Eymar’s impatience spilled over in a gentle ‘Please, Violeta, it’s late’ or ‘Violeta, we only have permission for fifteen minutes’, and she opened her bag and offered him a herring roll wrapped in brown paper.
‘I’ll be back,’ she said defiantly, staring straight at her husband.
Juan put up with Eduardo López’s routine questioning, and shared the roll with the boy with nits. What made the political commissar think that some day he might be able to use all the information he was collecting?
The fact that he was still alive was nothing more than mere chance, one of death’s arbitrary decisions. Besides, they had no contact whatsoever with the world outside – and yet there he was, the disciplined party man, accumulating information and analysing the prisoners’ behaviour.
Juan put a stop to their conversation with vague replies. Life smelled of herrings, and nothing could be more marvellous.
The days rolled by. March was cold and damp, as befits unlived time. Even though he found it hard to wear Miguel Eymar’s jersey, Juan was glad of the warmth it gave him through the endless nights.
The dawn lists continued, but were shorter each time. What was more encouraging still, they learned of several prisoners who had been given life sentences rather than shot.
That was almost like being alive.
Juan had another visit from the woman in the astrakhan coat and her henpecked husband. He lied once more, inventing heroic stories and events that brought a smile to pale, stiff lips nobody could ever imagine were capable of kissing. As with Sherezade, his lies bought him another night of life. And another.
Until one day when the first name on the list to appear before Colonel Eymar was the lad with nits. Juan waited the entire day for the prisoners to return. He pushed past the others to the window and shouted if anyone knew what had happened to Eugenio Paz. Nobody had any idea. That was the start of several days of an anguish that was new to Juan, like anguish piled on anguish, uncertainty added to uncertainty.
The larva-like existence in prison so quickly generates a catalogue of emotions, of memories crammed into this narrow period of time, that prisoners are amazed that to create their earlier emotions, those beyond the
prison walls, they needed an entire, intensely-lived life. In spite of this, Juan was horrified to think that, if we were alive in our tombs, we would probably end up loving the worms.
He used Miguel Eymar’s jersey to bribe Sergeant Edelmiro, but learned only that Paz was on the fourth floor, not what his sentence had been. He tried to send him a message, but had nothing left to pay for any favours. So Eugenio Paz never found out that Juan Senra had embraced him as a friend and brother.
He never knew that Juan Senra was asking where he could find the pregnant girl from Seville to tell her Eugenio was faithful and missed her so much. He never knew that Juan was worried about the way he rubbed his head raw when he tried to scratch the lice.
Then one morning, peering up at the bars of the glassless window, he heard Eugenio Paz’s name called out by the officer who read the list of those condemned to die that day. Juan made the last physical effort of his life and pulled himself up level with the window. He shouted at the top of his voice:
‘Eugenio! Don’t get on the lorry! It’s me, Juan!’
The officer’s voice went on reading out names, as though nothing and nobody could stop him. Gradually, Juan’s hands slipped from the bars and he fell in a heap on the floor. He cried in a way he no longer thought
possible after living through a war. As the noise of the lorry died away outside the prison gate, an interpreter of tears, some expert translator of sobs, might have caught the fact that, in the midst of all his gasping lament, Juan had said the word ‘Farewell’. But nobody did hear him, and for two days and nights he was gripped by a lethargy that was impervious to cold and hunger as well as to any encouragement. It was as though his biology had ceased to function, as if time itself had died of sadness.
Juan knew he did not have long to finish his letter. He wrote in a neat, tiny handwriting until he had filled all the paper he had managed to obtain:
I’m still alive, but by the time you receive this letter I’ll have been shot. I’ve tried to go mad but cannot. I refuse to go on living with all this sadness. I’ve discovered that the language I dreamt in order to create a
happier world is in fact the language of the dead. Remember me always and try to be happy. Your loving brother, Juan.
He tried to imagine how the chaplain would react when he came to censor the letter. He licked the envelope, wrote his brother’s address on the front, and handed it to the guard on duty. This was what they always did.
This was how the dead always said goodbye to the living.
On the third day, Sergeant Edelmiro repeated his name until Juan finally stirred out of his stupor. Someone helped him to the cell door. This time the two soldiers did not walk flanking him: they needed all their strength to carry him to the room where the woman in the astrakhan coat was waiting. There she was, concerned and maternal, a dark vampire concealing the slight figure of Colonel Eymar, who as always hovered in the
She asked if he was ill. It took Juan a long time to reply, as though he had not understood. When he finally did, it was to say: ‘I’m dead.’ ‘Oh come on, come on,’ she said, trying to encourage him. She led him over to the ledge. It will all be over one day. Juan let her lead him to sit down, but shook his head.
‘You’re young. All this will be over one day. You’ll see.’ Juan was still shaking his head softly. ‘I’ve brought you a roll.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘You need to eat, you don’t look well.’
‘So what’s wrong?’
Juan took a good look at these two sickly-sweet beings who were talking and behaving as if they owned him. Juan was their plaything, something that was meant to perform once they had wound him up, to move
when they gave him a push, to stop when told to do so. That was why they could not understand his behaviour now.
‘The thing is, I’ve remembered,’ he said.
The woman in astrakhan made the mistake of asking him what he had remembered that made him feel so ill.
Juan told her he had remembered the truth. That her son had been justifiably shot because he was a criminal, and not a war criminal, where guilt or innocence depended on which side was doing the judging, but a common criminal, a thief, someone who murdered civilians to steal from them and sell what did not belong to him on the black market, a gang leader who had not even shown loyalty to his fellows. Thanks to him, they had rounded up a whole organisation of traitors, thanks to his tip-off they had broken up a network that dealt in contaminated medicines. Fortunately not even being a coward had worked in his favour, because in the end he had been given a fair trial, condemned to death, and shot even more fairly by a firing squad. And he did not die a hero’s death. I – in this Juan Senra was lying – I was in charge of the squad that executed him. He shit himself, he cried, he begged us not to kill him, he promised he would tell us more about the organisations
loyal to Franco still hiding in Madrid… he was scum, and died like scum. Everything I told you before was lies. I did it so that I could live, but I no longer want to live if it means I have to give you comfort. Now I want to go. All this was like a thunderbolt, an earth tremor that took Colonel Eymar and his wife’s breath away. They listened in silence to this rapid sketch of their son, done in colours they knew at once were the colours of truth. Nobody lies when they want to die. They did not even protest when Juan Senra walked out of the room he had been carried into, or when he ordered the sergeant outside to take him back to his cell, even though the soldier looked to the colonel for confirmation. He interpreted the glassy look in the officer’s eyes as approval, and, feeling obliged to look more professional, straightened up and roughly pushed Juan Senra along the corridor in front of him. He kept a safe distance behind his prisoner as they climbed the stairs back up to the second floor.
Juan said nothing to anyone. He did not queue with his bowl for the evening broth, but stood silently beneath the window, imagining a vast grey sky beyond its bars that had the power to abolish all sign of spring.
Two days later, his name was first on the list of those summoned before the tribunal. He was the first to appear before Colonel Eymar. He was the first person condemned to death that day. None of the threats from
Lieutenant Rioboo or any of the blows in the face from the albino, flagdoodling clerk could force him to stand to attention.
At first light the next morning, his was the first name on the list of those taken out into the yard. As the lorry carrying him and the other condemned men to La Almudena cemetery emerged from the prison gate, Juan Senra thought Eduardo López would be relieved now there was no longer any reason to keep him alive. He tried to guess what arcane criteria the chaplain had used to censor the letter he had written his brother. It reassured him to think it would never be sent.
He also thought – and this too gave him a certain satisfaction – that the smug look of triumph must have disappeared forever from Colonel Eymar’s face.
He only stopped hating when he thought of his brother.
From Blind Sunflowers by Alberto Méndez
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Arcadia Books 2008)
Alberto Méndez worked for both Spanish and international publishing companies before writing Blind Sunflowers, which was awarded the 2004 Sentenil Prize and the 2005 National Prize for Literature. Méndez died in 2004.
Nick Caistor is a British writer who has translated more than thirty books from the Spanish, including works by Juan Carlos Onetti, Juan Marsé and Eduardo Mendoza. In 2007 he was awarded the Valle-Inclán Translation Prize for his version of The Sleeping Voice by Dulce Chacón.